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A Failed Compromise and Misreading History

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A Failed Compromise and Misreading History

by Stephen Brunig
Saturday, October 26, 2013
posted in Opinion

It would be hard to argue against the need to promote a culture of compromise in our current political atmosphere, and American history is certainly filled with noble and notable examples. The Three-Fifths Compromise of 1787, however is not among them.

In an effort to publicly encourage a spirit of compromise, University of Emory President James Wagner’s recent article (link) claimed that the Three-Fifths Compromise “facilitated the achievement of what both sides of the debate really aspired to—a new nation… Pragmatic half-victories kept in view the higher aspiration of drawing the country more closely together.” Understandably, his article prompted a very critical response and Wagner has since issued an apology, but for me, this incident illustrated an all too common mistake, the appropriation of history without an understanding of context. His reading of this singular incident ignores the ramifications of the Three-Fifths Compromise itself, and draws entirely the wrong conclusions.

In regards to the Three-Fifths Compromise, it’s hard to fully grasp the circumstances of its adoption, and the magnitude of its effect. The ratio itself was not a new one; a taxation policy that would have counted slaves as three-fifths of a person towards the total population was proposed but never ratified with the Articles of Confederation. In that debate, southerners argued against representing their slaves, as a higher population would have resulted in owing more taxes, while northerners insisted slaves should be counted as people and taxed. In the southern states, legal tradition had established that slaves were property, and Thomas Jefferson noted during the debate that it would be unfair if they were taxed “according to their numbers and their wealth conjunctly, while the northern would be taxed on numbers only.” (link)

By the time of the Constitutional Convention, representation, and not taxation, was the more pressing issue and the sides quickly reversed their positions. Southern states were now motivated to include their slave populations to gain more congressional representatives, and northern states fought to limit that influence. While most southern delegates had previously insisted slaves were property, now many cast themselves as caretakers and representatives, citing the fact that women and children couldn’t vote but were still counted towards the population. Alexander Hamilton commented on this discrepancy during the debate. “Much has been said of the impropriety of representing men who have no will of their own. ...They are men, though degraded to the condition of slavery. They are persons known to the municipal laws of the states which they inhabit, as well as to the laws of nature. But representation and taxation go together. ...Would it be just to impose a singular burden, without conferring some adequate advantage?” Eventually however, the three-fifths ratio found its way into Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3 of the U.S. Constitution (link).

Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.

This compromise regarding slavery set the stage for ensuing decades of debate, political division, violent conflict and a deadly civil war. Slave owners built a conflicting philosophy that simultaneously viewed slaves as nothing more than property while insisting they reap the political rewards of representing them as people. It’s hard to quantify the political advantage that the slave power in America established. Historian Garry Wills speculated in his 2003 book “Negro President”: Jefferson and the Slave Power that Jefferson would not have won the 1800 election without the extra votes the Three-Fifths clause gave to the southern states. He continues saying that without their inflated representation, Missouri might have been a free state, the Wilmot Priviso (making slavery illegal in the territories gained from Mexico) would have passed, and the Kansas-Nebraska bill would have failed. While historians have debated these possibilities (link), it’s hard to dismiss the added influence held by the southern states. Ultimately, pro-slavery interests won those battles and many others, until 1860, when a politically united North elected Abraham Lincoln and the southern states attempted to secede from the Union, sparking the Civil War.

The Three-Fifths Compromise hardly leaves behind a legacy of compromise worth emulating. Rather than unite the new nation, it failed to effectively deal with the issue of slavery, distorted the political balance, and muddled the legal definition of slavery. The problems that this compromise perpetuated set the United States on a path that led to the Civil War, a conflict so bloody that its casualties outnumber all other American wars combined. While the outcome of that war, and the constitutional changes that came with it, made the Three-Fifths Compromise legally irrelevant, its inclusion in the U.S. Constitution should never be cited to extol the virtues compromise.

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